Noble Grape

The Norton grape is an American original, an accidental hybrid that was found, then lost and found again. Still, it’s hard to find.

Port maker Bill Reading found it by chance when he learned that one of his major sources for Petite Sirah and other red wine grapes also grows five acres of Norton. “In 2012 I bought a ton, and have been buying a ton a year ever since then,” Reading says. “I love the story behind it, and I really like the characteristics it exhibits.”

The story behind the Norton grape has more twists and turns than the story of Zinfandel, which some Norton supporters see as an usurper of the grape’s rightful claim as America’s “heritage grape.” Put author Todd Kliman’s Wild Vine on your reading list if you’ve got the leisure time; published in 2010, the book follows a quirky cast of characters, both historical and contemporary, from the cruel farce of the Virginia Company’s vinicultural efforts at Jamestown through the recent sort-of-resurgence of the Norton grape.

The who, again? Long story short, a despondent young Virginia doctor and amateur botanist named Daniel Norton set out to accomplish what no less a green thumb than Thomas Jefferson failed to do: create an all-American wine that could hold its own against the great wines of France.

Somewhere around 1820, Norton tried to hybridize native grapes with a Vitis vinifera cultivar from Burgundy—not an unusual preoccupation, since long before hybrids were considered as a solution to the fungal diseases and root louses that invaded European vineyards and then California, would-be vintners wished to tame the “foxy” flavor of native grapes. But one experiment went awry when “rogue” pollen from nearby Vitis aestivalis produced the seed of a grape that Norton called, with 19th-century frankness, the “Seedling.”

Listed in a nursery catalogue in 1822, the Norton vine was later taken up in Missouri, where a wine industry thrived until Prohibition. Norton wines were served at the White House and won top prizes in European competitions. When the business picked up again in California, nobody cared about Norton anymore, and the five acres grown by Heringer Estates, a fourth-generation operation in Clarksburg, doesn’t even register on official acreage reports.

Norton has a reputation for producing big wines, and it’s not short on anthocyanins. “It’s fascinating how quickly it takes on the color of the skins,” Reading says. His Sonoma Portworks Aris Clarksburg Norton Port ($38) shows late-summer arbor aromas of grapes, figs and dates, and a sweet, earthy tobacco note. Any fan of traditional port would go wild for this.